Category Archives: D. A. Carson

December 31 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

2 Chronicles 36; Revelation 22; Malachi 4; John 21

 

of all the resurrection appearances of Jesus, doubtless the one that probed Peter most deeply is the one reported in John 21.

It starts off with seven disciples going fishing, catching nothing overnight, and then pulling in a vast catch at Jesus’ command. It continues with a breakfast over coals on the beach (21:1–14). There follows the memorable exchange that reinstates Peter after his ignominious disowning of his master.

(1) In the interchange between Jesus and Peter (21:15–17), the interplay of two different Greek words for “love” has convinced many commentators that there is something profoundly weighty about the distinction (though the distinction itself is variously explained). For various reasons, I remain unpersuaded. John loves to use synonyms, with very little distinction in meaning. The terms vary for feed/take care/feed, and for lambs/sheep/sheep, just as they varied for “love.” In 3:35, the Father “loves” the Son, and one of the two verbs is used; in 5:20, the Father “loves” the Son, and the other of the two verbs is used—and there is no distinction in meaning whatsoever. Both verbs can have good or bad connotations; everything is determined by context. If we are to probe the significance of this exchange between Jesus and Peter, we shall have to depend on something other than the interchange of the two Greek verbs. So drop the “truly” in 21:15 and 16 (which is the NIV’s way of trying to maintain a distinction between the two verbs).

(2) “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (21:15, italics added). Does “these” refer to “these other disciples” or to “these fish”? In Matthew 26:33, Peter boasts that he will never fall away, even if all the other disciples do. That boast is not reported in John’s gospel, even though John records Peter’s awful denials. Alternatively, since the men have just been fishing, perhaps “these” refers to the fish. But if so, why pick only on Peter, and not on all seven disciples? On balance, I suspect this passage is reminding Peter of his fateful boast, and this is one of the passages that provides a kind of interlocking of accounts between John and the Synoptic Gospels. Is Peter still prepared to assert his moral superiority over the other disciples?

(3) Three times Jesus runs through the same question; three times he elicits a response; three times he commissions Peter. As the denial was threefold (18:15–18, 25–27), so also are these steps of restoration. Peter is “hurt” by the procedure (21:17); the next verses show he still retains streaks of immaturity (see vol. 1, meditation for March 31). But while Jesus here gladly restores a broken disciple who has disowned him, he makes him face his sin, declare his love, and receive a commission.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 31 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

2 Chronicles 36; Revelation 22; Malachi 4; John 21

 

both of our primary readings for this last day of the year convey hope.

The first, 2 Chronicles 36, depicts the final destruction of Jerusalem. The Babylonians raze the city and the leading citizenry are transported seven or eight hundred miles from home. But the closing verses admit a whisper of hope. Babylon does not have the last word. Decades later the Persian empire takes over and becomes the regional superpower, and Cyrus the king authorizes the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and the construction of a new temple. Historically, of course, the Persians established this policy for all the peoples that the Babylonians had transported: they were all permitted to return home. But the chronicler rightly sees the application of this policy to Israel as supreme evidence of the hand of God, and a new stage in the history of redemption that would bring about the fulfillment of all God’s promises.

The hope depicted in the second reading, Revelation 22, is of a superior order. The opening verses complete the vision of Revelation 21. The blessedness of the consummation turns on such matters as these: the water of life flows freely from the throne of God and of the Lamb; all the results of the curse are expunged; God’s people will constantly see his face, i.e., they will forever be in his presence; there are no more cycles of night and day—again, the point is moral, not astronomical, i.e., there will be no more cycles of good and evil, of light and darkness, for all will live in the light of God.

Granted the sheer goodness and glory of this sustained and symbol-laden vision of the consummation and the triumph of redemption, the rest of the chapter is largely devoted to assuring the reader of the utter reliability of this vision, and therefore of the absolute importance of being among those “who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city” (22:14). Here, then, is the ultimate hope, such that if one turns away this time, there is no more hope. There is only a fearful anticipation of final wrath. We are not there yet, the author says, but the climax is not far away, and when it comes, it will be too late.

The resurrected and exalted Jesus, the one who is the Root and Offspring of David and the bright Morning Star (22:16), solemnly declares, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:12–13).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 30 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

2 Chronicles 35; Revelation 21; Malachi 3; John 20

 

people may be faithless, but the Lord does not change. That changelessness threatens judgment; it is also the reason the people are not destroyed (Mal. 3:6). Hope depends on God’s gracious intervention, grounded in his changeless character (Mal. 3).

(1) “ ‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty” (3:1). This promise sounds as if it is responding to the cynicism that set in after the second temple was built. There was the temple, but where was the glory Ezekiel had foreseen (Ezek. 43:1–5)? Only when the Lord comes will the purpose of the rebuilding of the temple be fulfilled. And the Lord will fulfill that promise. First, he will send his “messenger,” a forerunner “to prepare the way before me.” And then suddenly “the Lord you are seeking” will come to his temple, “the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire.” Despite valiant efforts to explain the text some other way, the most obvious reading is the one picked up just a few pages later in the Bible (though actually a few centuries later). Before the Lord himself comes—the Lord they seek, the messenger of the new covenant long promised—there is another messenger who prepares the way. Jesus insists that the forerunner of whom Malachi spoke is none other than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10).

(2) Whenever God discloses himself in a special way to his people, and not least in this climactic self-disclosure, there is wrath as well as mercy. Anticipation of the “day of his coming” (3:2) therefore calls for profound repentance (3:2–5). Such repentance covers the sweep from the ugly sins listed in 3:5 to something more easily passed over, but clearly ugly to God: robbery, robbing God of the tithes and offerings that are his due (3:6–12). Away with the cynicism that says serving God is a waste of time and money, that there is no percentage in putting God at the center, that it is “futile” to serve the Lord (3:13–15).

(3) Not a few of the Old Testament prophets faithfully discharged their ministry and saw little fruit in their own times. Others witnessed something of a revival. Haggai saw the Lord so work among the people that the temple was rebuilt. Malachi, too, saw fruit in the lives of those who heeded his message and began to live in the light of the promise yet to be fulfilled: “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other [presumably encouraging and stimulating one another to faithfulness], and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name” (3:16).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 30 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

2 Chronicles 35; Revelation 21; Malachi 3; John 20

 

at last we reach the climax of redemption (Rev. 21). In his final vision, John sees “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). Some notes:

(1) The absence of any sea (21:1) does not establish the hydrological principles of the new heaven and new earth. The sea, as we have noted before, is symbolic for chaos, the old order, death. And so the sea is gone.

(2) John also sees “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:2). We are not to place this New Jerusalem within the new heaven and the new earth. They are two quite separate images of the final reality, two ways of depicting the one truth—not unlike the Lion and the Lamb in Revelation 5, where although there are two animals there is only one Jesus to whom these two animals refer. One way of thinking about the consummated glory is to conceive of it as a new universe, a new heaven and earth; another way of thinking about it is as the New Jerusalem—with many entailments to this latter image.

(3) Yet a third way of thinking of the consummation is to focus on the marriage supper of the Lamb (21:2, 9; cf. 19:9)—and here the bride is the New Jerusalem. The metaphors have become wonderfully mixed. But all can see that the consummation will involve perfect intimacy between the Lord Jesus and the people he has redeemed.

(4) Doubtless the perfections of the New Jerusalem are so far outside our experience that it is difficult to imagine them. But one way of getting at them is by negation: we are to understand what ugly things connected with sin and decay will not be present: there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4).

(5) The city is an inherently social reality. The consummation is not a place of lone-ranger spirituality. Nor are all cities bad, like “Babylon,” the mother of prostitutes (chapter 17; see meditation for December 26). This city, the New Jerusalem, is described in many symbol-laden ways to depict its wonder and glory—too many to unpack here. But note that it is built as a perfect cube. This no more reflects its architecture than the lack of sea betrays the ultimate hydrological arrangements. The cube is symbolic: there is only one cube in the Old Testament, and that is the Most Holy Place of the temple, where only the priest could enter once a year, bearing blood for his own sins and for the sins of the people. Now the entire city is the Most Holy Place: in the consummation all of God’s people are perennially in the unshielded splendor of his glorious presence.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 29 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

2 Chronicles 34; Revelation 20; Malachi 2; John 19

 

one of the signs that a culture is coming apart is that its people do not keep their commitments. When those commitments have been made to or before the Lord, as well as to one another, the offense is infinitely compounded.

There is something attractive and stable about a society in which, if a person gives his or her word, you can count on it. Huge deals can be sealed with a handshake because each party trusts the other. Marriages endure. People make commitments and keep them. Of course, from the vantage point of our relatively faithless society, it is easy to mock the picture I am sketching by finding examples where that sort of world may leave a person trapped in a brutal marriage or a business person snookered by an unscrupulous manipulator. But if you focus on the hard cases and organize society on growing cynicism, you foster selfish individualism, faithlessness, irresponsibility, cultural instability, crookedness, and multiplied armies of lawyers. And sooner or later you will deal with an angry God.

For God despises faithlessness (Mal. 2:1–17). Within the postexilic covenant community of ancient Israel, some of the worst examples of such faithlessness were bound up with the explicitly religious dimensions of the culture—but not all of them:

(1) The lips of the priest should “preserve knowledge” and “from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty” (2:7). The priest was to revere God and stand in awe of his name (2:5), convey true instruction (2:6), and maintain the way of the covenant (2:8). But because the priests have proved faithless at all this, God will cause them to be despised and humiliated before all the people (2:9). So why is it today that ministers of the Gospel are rated just above used car salesmen in terms of public confidence?

(2) As do some other prophets (e.g., Ezek. 16, 23), Malachi portrays spiritual apostasy in terms of adultery (2:10–12).

(3) Unsurprisingly, faithlessness in the spiritual arena is accompanied by faithlessness in marriages and the home (2:13–16). Oh, these folk can put on quite a spiritual display, weeping and calling down blessings from God. But God simply does not pay any attention. Why not? “It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant” (2:14).

(4) More generically, these people have wearied the Lord with their endless casuistry, their moral relativism (2:17).

“So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith” (2:16).[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 29 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

2 Chronicles 34; Revelation 20; Malachi 2; John 19

 

in the meditation for November 9, I briefly reflected on the reforming zeal of Josiah, who led the last attempt at large-scale reformation in Judah (2 Kings 22). About three-quarters of a century had passed since the death of Hezekiah, but much of this was presided over by Manasseh, whose reign of more than half a century was almost entirely devoted to pagan evil. Now we return to the same event, this time recorded in 2 Chronicles 34. Here we may pick up some additional and complementary lessons.

(1) The rediscovery of the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) in the rubbish of the temple discloses to Josiah how dangerous is Judah’s position: the wrath of God hangs over her head. Josiah tears his clothes, repents, and orders reform. Moreover, he instructs his attendants to inquire of the prophetess Huldah (34:22) as to how imminent these dangers are. God’s response is that disaster and judgment on Jerusalem are now inevitable—“all the curses written in the book that has been read in the presence of the king of Judah” (34:24). The pattern of deliberate and repeated covenantal breach has become so sustained and horrific that judgment must come. However, the Lord adds, “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God when you heard what he spoke against this place and its people, and because you humbled yourself before me and tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you” (34:27)—and Josiah is assured that the impending disaster will not occur during his lifetime.

There are two obvious lessons here. First, we are afforded a glimpse of what God expects from us if we live in a time of cataclysmic declension: not philosophizing, but self-humbling, transparent repentance, tears, contrition. Second, as so often in the Bible, precisely because God is so slow to anger and so forbearing, he is more eager to suspend and delay the judgment that is the necessary correlative of his holiness than we are to beg him for mercy.

(2) The picture of the king himself calling together the elders of Judah and solemnly reading to them the Scripture (34:29–31) is enormously moving. There is nothing that our generation needs more than to hear the Word of God—and this at a time of biblical illiteracy rising at an astonishing rate. Moreover, it needs to hear Christian leaders personally submitting to Scripture, personally reading and teaching Scripture—not in veiled ways that merely assume some sort of heritage of Christian teaching while actually focusing on just about anything else, but in ways that are reverent, exemplary, comprehensive, insistent, persistent. Noth-ing, nothing at all, is more urgent.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 28 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

2 Chronicles 33; Revelation 19; Malachi 1; John 18

 

we do not know much about Malachi. He served in the postexilic period, later than the early years when the greatest crises took place. By his day, both the wall and the temple had been rebuilt. Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, and Joshua were names in the past. The returned remnant had settled down. Nothing of great significance had occurred very recently. There was no spectacular restoration of the glory of God to the temple, envisaged by Ezekiel (43:4). The ritual was carried out, but without fervor or enthusiasm.

This is the situation Malachi addresses. It makes his words peculiarly appropriate for believers living in similar days of lethargy. There is not much going on: the political situation is stable, religious freedom is secure, the prescribed rituals are carried out—but all of it lacks not only passion but integrity, life-transformation, zeal, honor in relationships and promises, the fear of the Lord. The returned Jews are characterized by a world-weary cynicism that will not be moved.

Already Malachi 1 sets the stage:

(1) The people are not convinced that God really loves them. “How have you loved us?” they protest (1:2)—especially considering the generally sorry state of weakness and relative poverty in which they find themselves. God appeals to his love in choosing them in the first place. He chose Jacob above Esau; there was nothing intrinsic to the two men to prompt the choice. The choice is traceable to nothing more and nothing less than the electing love of God. Believers must learn to rest securely in this love, or they will be bushwhacked by every dark circumstance that comes along.

(2) In their religious practices the people perform the rituals but treat God with a distinct lack of respect. That is shown in at least two ways. (a) The law specified that those who bring a sacrifice should bring an unblemished lamb, not the weak and the crippled. Yet these people bring the worst animals from their flocks—something they would not think of doing if they were presenting a gift to an earthly monarch (1:6–9). (b) Above all, by word and deed the people treat the worship of Almighty God as a burden to be endured rather than as a delight to enjoy or at least as a happy duty to discharge. “What a burden!” (1:13), they moan, sniffing “contemptuously” (1:13).

What is at issue is that God is a great king. These people act in a way that despises him. “My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun” (1:11). “For I am a great king … and my name is to be feared among the nations” (1:14). Do Malachi’s words shame our approach to God?[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

DECEMBER 28 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

2 Chronicles 33; Revelation 19; Malachi 1; John 18

REVELATION 19 IS DIVIDED into two parts. In the first part, John hears the roar of a great crowd in heaven shouting out various lines of unrestrained praise, joined by various others in antiphonal unity. The first stanza of adoration (19:1–3) praises God because he has condemned the great prostitute (see the reflections for December 26–27), thus demonstrating the truth and justice of his judgments (19:2). This stanza elicits a chorus: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (19:3), and the elders around the throne join in adoring approbation (19:4). A voice from the throne exhorts all God’s servants to join in praise—”you who fear him, both small and great” (19:5)—and again John hears a vast multitude in the thunderous acclamation of worship. Now the focus is less on God’s justice in condemning the prostitute, and more on the sheer glory of the reign of “our Lord God Almighty” and on the imminent “wedding of the Lamb” (19:6–8).
The second part of the chapter depicts Jesus in highly symbolic categories. Once again it is important to remind ourselves how apocalyptic can mix its metaphors. He who from chapter 5 on is referred to most commonly as the Lamb (a designation that is still very common in chapters 21–22) is now presented as a warrior riding a white horse. This warrior is called “Faithful and True” (19:11); his name is “the Word of God” (19:13; compare John 1:1, 14), and his title is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16). He leads the armies of heaven in the final assault on the two beasts (i.e., on the beast and the false prophet) and on all who bear their mark. His weapon is a sharp sword that comes out of his mouth: he needs only speak to win. It is he who “treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (19:15), which returns us to the terrifying image of 14:19–20.
In one sense, Revelation 19 does not advance the plotline of the book of Revelation. It does not try to do so. We have already been told that God destroys the great prostitute, that those who bear the mark of the beast must face the wrath of God, and so forth. What it adds—and this is vital—is the entirely salutary reminder that God is in absolute control, that he is to be praised for his just judgments on all that is evil, and that the agent who destroys all opposition in the end is none other than Jesus Christ. Moreover, all of this is conveyed not only in the spectacular language of apocalyptic, but with the exulting tongue of enthusiastic praise. Implicitly we readers are invited to join in, even if at this stage we do so by faith and not by sight.

Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 27 For the love of God (Vol. 2)

2 Chronicles 32; Revelation 18; Zechariah 14; John 17

 

from time to time in these two volumes I have drawn attention to the fact that the way a biblical writer uses a word may not be the same way we use it. The serious reader of the Bible will then want to take special pains to avoid reading into the Bible what it does not say.

On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus prayed for his followers in these terms: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:17–19). Observe:

First, this side of the Reformation “sanctification” usually refers to the gradual growth in grace that flows out of conversion. In justification God declares us to be just, on account of the sacrifice that his Son has offered up on our behalf; in sanctification, God continues to work in us to make us more and more holy, “sanctified,” maturing into conformity with Jesus Christ. There is nothing wrong with talking like that: in the domain of systematic theology, the categories are reasonably clear. And after all, whether or not the word “sanctification” is used, there are plenty of passages that depict this sort of growth in grace (e.g., Phil. 3:10ff.).

Second, that sort of use of “sanctification” makes little sense of 17:19. When Jesus says that for the sake of his disciples “I sanctify myself,” he does not mean that for their sakes he becomes more holy than he was, a little more mature and consistent perhaps. Rather, in the light of John’s closing chapters, he means that he totally devotes himself to his Father’s will—and God’s will is that Jesus go to the cross. Jesus is entirely reserved for what the Father wants; he sanctifies himself.

Third, Jesus’ purpose in such obedience is that his disciples “may be truly sanctified” (17:19). Because of Jesus’ self-sanctification he goes to the cross and dies for his own; in consequence of this cross-work, his disciples are truly “sanctified,” i.e., set aside for God. This sounds like what systematicians call “positional sanctification”: the focus is not on growing conformity to God, but on the transformation of one’s position before God owing to Jesus’ decisive atonement.

Fourth, what Jesus asks for in his prayer is that his Father “sanctify” his disciples by the truth, i.e., by his word which is truth (17:17). He may simply be asking that they be decisively “sanctified” by the truth of the Gospel. But if an experiential, long-term dimension is also in view, this passage tells us how to become more “sanctified”—in line with Psalm 1:2; 119:109, 111.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 2, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

December 27 For the love of God (Vol. 1)

2 Chronicles 32; Revelation 18; Zechariah 14; John 17

 

if revelation 17 exposes the abominations of “Babylon,” Revelation 18 announces her imminent destruction. Much of the language is drawn from Old Testament passages that predict the destruction of historic Babylon or some other pagan city characterized by corruption, violence, and idolatry.

Read the chapter again, slowly and reflectively. It is worth remembering that although Rome faced several major reverses during the ensuing three hundred years, it was not until the time of Augustine that the city was thoroughly sacked by the barbarians to the north. So much of the description of this chapter came to quite brutal and literal fulfillment. But by that time, Christianity had itself become the state religion, and many Christians therefore found the sacking difficult to accept, let alone explain.

It was Augustine who wrote a book that set the sacking of Rome in a theological context that helped Christians make sense of it all. His volume The City of God traces out two cities, the city of God and the city of man. (See the meditation for January 9.) These categories for him become the controlling typology not only for his rapid scan of biblical history, but for his analysis of good and evil within history. The work is masterful and deserves close reading even today.

Above all, Augustine warns us against associating the church and the Gospel too closely with the cities and kingdoms of this world, cities that are all temporal and temporary and slated for destruction, hopelessly compromised. By contrast, Christians should identify themselves with the new Jerusalem, the city of the great King, the Jerusalem that is above, whose builder and maker is God.

Getting these matters right is never easy or simple. “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues” (18:4). In the context of the book of Revelation, this is a compelling exhortation not to align with any of “Babylon’s” corroding riches and perverted values. One must “come out” and “leave” this doomed city which stands under the judgment of Almighty God. But these words have been used to justify second- and third-degree separation, as if that is what the Apocalypse were teaching. If some enjoy Babylon so much they end up being destroyed with her, others expect to build their own centers entirely removed from Babylon’s corroding influence, without perceiving that until Jesus returns the people of God must constantly be tugged in different directions by the city of God and by the city of God’s rebellious image-bearers. Our ultimate hope is in God himself, who not only introduces the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21–22), but who brings down this “mother of prostitutes” in his own sovereign judgment.[1]

 

[1] Carson, D. A. (1998). For the love of God: a daily companion for discovering the riches of God’s Word. (Vol. 1, p. 25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.